OH, IT STARTED out as a blissful romance. And now . . . it looks as if it's headed for . . . "splitsville." Both sides, "Washington," and "the Carter People," have their stories. It is beginning to sound like a monthly feature out of Redbook.

"They don't go to our parties," despair the hostesses.

"They're boring and we'd rather go drinking with the gang," retort the Carter People.

"They won't have lunch with us," complain the lawyers.

"We don't eat lunch," say the Carter People.

"They won't wheel and deal with us," accuse the congressmen and senators.

"We don't think we should have to do it that way," say the Carter People.

"They won't answer our phone calls," whine the press.

"They're not going to write anything favorable about us anyway," say the Carter People.

Can this marriage be saved? The Big Game

"Let me give an observation others may not have come upon," says that masterful proconsul of the establishment Clark Clifford, in his dulcet tones: "The attitude of people in Washington is based on the fact that these people are different. And here's the reason they're different. Take our last Presidents.For the last 32 years they've all come from Washington, D.C. They bring in people the press and others know. These Presidents know the attitudes in Washington. This group comes in and we've not had a grasp on them. Washington is accustomed to a certain mold and certain form. People don't react well to people who are different. Washington, by the way, can be very provincial, Christ almighty, talk abot Georgia.You're a kind of queer duck if you don't see the press for breakfast, go to dinner parties and so on. But Washington is not like the rest of the country at all. It's not a microcosm.

"Of course," says Clifford, "the President is going to lose points."

"The President asked me," says House Speaker Tip O'Neill, "what are the problems?

"And I said to the President, I said, I don't know Frank Moore. And I said I don't know Jody Powell. I read in the paper where Jody Powell said he didn't know me. So the next day at a breakfast I saw Jody and I went over and said, I'm Tip O'Neill.

"Nobody on the hill knows any Carter people. Politically or socially."

Politically Jimmy Carter is losing points these days, with a stalemated energy bill, a delayed tax boost and falling national popularity in the polls. He is beginning to be perceived as a man who can't get things done.

Why? The answer is complex, but some Washington observers think Jimmy Carter is not making it because Jimmy Carter and, more important, those around him, are not playing "the game."

"The game" in Washington is played as it is played in any other political arena, any other state or national capital.

"The game" has to do with human contact, with meeting and greeting, gladhanding and backslapping, socializing, flattering, cajoling, schmoozing - at restaurants and embassies, at intimate dinners in Georgetown, at breakfasts on the Hill.

Many people who come to Washington are amazed that the most powerful capital in the world works, in part, in what may seem such a frivolous way.

The Carter team ran and won on anti-Washington sentiment. Such frivolity wasn't part of their platform. But once they arrived, like an alien tribe, they found themselves in strange territory. They confronted odd customs and taboos along the Potomac. They were not, in fact, comfortable with limousines, yachts, or in elegant salons, in black tie, with seating charts at the door, little envelops with numbers in them, cocktail chitchat, place cards, servants, six courses, different forks, three wines, turning the table, fingerbowls, toasts, liqueurs and after-dinner mingling.

And the Carters themselves stopped serving booze at the White House, cut out dancing, outlawed limousines and sold the Sequoia.

"The other night at the Israeli embassy," said Sen. Charles McC. Mathias (R-Md.), "I met (presidential counsel) Bob Lipshutz. And I asked him if he received gratuitous advice. And then I said if I had one piece of advice for the Carter administration it would be to buy back the Sequoia. Lipshutz told me they planned to use Camp David for those kind of events that used to take place on the Sequoia. But you can't get the whole judiciary committee at Camp David by 7 p.m. and do any business. They thought," he said, "that the Sequoia was a personal luxury. They didn't realize it was a floating conference room, away from the telephones, the temptations to go home ."

In previous times it has been easy for any dedicated host or hostess to get guests. Perle Mesta's line that the way to get people to come to your parties in Washington was to hang a lamb chop in the window remained until this administration. Now hostesses and hosts have been blanked. The music has started and there's nobody to dance with.

One theory is that the Carter people still think you are supposed to go to parties in Washington for fun, to have a good time. Only a few are beginning to catch on that social events mean work.

A young woman, quite anti-establishment, who recently went to work at one of the Departments in a rather high-level position was amazed recently to find herself admitting that she finally understood what the Washington social ritual was all about. She had spent an entire evening at dinner with an influential senator who had left the dinner much more positive about several programs her bureau was trying to push through. And she had had lunch with a White House type only the week before, who, after a congenial meal, agreed to help her win support for her program there, too.

"Six months ago," she said, "I would have said you were crazy. Now I'm wondering if it's not one of the most important things I do."

"Some of the Carter people do go, and some are starting to go," says Washington hostess Ina Ginsburg, "but I do think it's true that some of the younger Carter people have their own fun among themselves."

"The Carter people are very self-conscious and they haven't mastered the art of saying nothing. Or the right thing when it counts," bemoans another well-known Washington hostess. Henry Kissinger has spoiled us," this hostess says. "He was totally fearless, he went wherever he pleased, he was such fun, so clever and witty. I think these people are scared of Carter's displeasure. I don't think anyone was scared of Ford's displeasure."

One night a member of Carter's White House staff was invited to the home of a journalist. The journalist had recently been highly critical of Carter in a magazine piece. When the staffer's wife called for directions she was asked facetiously if she wanted directions through the back alley instead so as not to be seen coming into their house. The staffer's wife thanked her solemnly for being so kind and requested the back door directions. Touching Power

"The expectations are different from the reality," says President Carter's personal secretary, Susan Clough, "I perceived Washingtonians as people whose sole motivation was touching power." When she was first asked several months ago about the attitude of those in the White House about going out on the Washington circuit, she talked a lot about peer pressure as a reason for not going out.

"I go out occasionally," she says, "but not that often. Partially because it gets written about. Going out to parties and getting covered causes a chain reaction at the White House. Some people will compliment you but mostly it creates a momentary disharmony. It singles you out for attention.

"Even if you're pleased that you're in the article because you're new to publicity, yet you have to say to everyone 'oh gee' and pretend not to like it. I think that's a typical reaction. For instance, I'd go in and my boss would say, 'I read about you in the paper.' Then I don't know whether to be concerned or not. And if you're quoted all the time it creates suspicion. Because we can't have people subconsciously questioning whether they can trust what they say around me."

Most recently, however, she says she thinks that's no longer applicable, that things have changed. "I've decided that a lot of people just don't like to go out so they don't go but they don't care about what others do."

"I do think," says one hostess, "that Hamilton Jordan makes a definite effort not to go. Barry Jagoda does get around. Stu Eizenstat, not much. Zbigniew Brzezinski does go but he doesn't answer until late and then you don't know if he'll show. Jody seems to be trying. The Christophers go out but the Vances are always too busy. Then there are people like the Hertzbergs and the Neustadts who love to go out. You can have a slew of those."

Barry Jagoda, Carter's media adviser, says "most of the people I talk to around here have full calendars. It might be that the traditional hosts and hostesses are no longer the focus of the social activity. Remember, there are 7,000 new Carter appointees. But I do think it's an important part of your work," he admits.

Jerry Rafshoon, Jimmy Carter's campaign media and advertising adviser, says that in the beginning, "all the put-downs about grits and down home and barbecues really turned the Carter people off. There were not that many barbecues and plenty of very nice dinners in the governor's mansion. Atlanta is a very cosmopolitan city. I'll put Jody Powell up against anybody who went to Harvard. He can discuss anything. Washingtonians were satisfied with LBJ, who had around him some tacky people. But they were people who'd been around here for a while. Do they think Bobby Baker has more class than Hamilton Jordan? I'll put up Nancy Jordan and Nan Powell against most women in this town. The Carter people are not antisocial.

"I'm not saying that Washington should adapt to their ways," he says, "but there's got to be a balance." Tuxedos and Jeans

One night at a Georgetown innersanctum dinner party given by a distinguished statesman and his wife, a female guest, the wife of a columnist, arrived in an elegant black chiffon dress. The hostess rushed to greet her at the door and whispered to her, "My dear, you are much too overdressed. Don't you know the Carter people hate that?"

White House counsel Bob Lipshutz is a Southern gentleman. He is quiet, shy, pleasant, sweet and very polite. He finds himself somewhat confused by the Washington social whirl and though he enjoys meeting new people and socializing, the dimensions and the style in which Washington does it don't altogether appeal to him.

"I'm really reflecting my own taste," he says. "I personally prefer small groups so you have a chance to be with people and chat. I like an informal atmosphere. Definitely not tuxedos. Informatlity creates an atmosphere of candor and openness, but I'm not uptight about tuxedos. There is repetitive style of entertaining here. You've seen one, you've seen them all.So we don't go to large receptions here.

"And I do think dress makes a difference. Regardless," he says, "of the open warmth of people, the casualness of a sport shirt and jacket, of a woman in other than long dress, makes a difference."

In a bitter tirade against the Carter administration a few weeks ago, Sen. Edward Brooke (R-Mass) said that "when you go to the White House, the place looks physically dirty: People running around in jeans doesn't look right." Carter, he said, "surrounds himself with sort of a group of generally young people he brought up from Georgia. It just seems the government doesn't know what it's doing ." Hors d'oeuvres in Combat

"Either they learn to live and work with Washington or move into a bunker," says a pol who has been in and out of five administrations, "identify with middle America and fight it. He's not winning them and he's not exploiting them. Russell Long can eat Carter for hors d'oeuvres. The worst thing you can do in politics is not communicate. The Carter people are being put down on the Washington party circuit and the next step is that people in Peoria are going to be reading undesirable things. If you get the Federal City Club up in arms about something, then the Secretary of State or his representatives should be there to know about it. You've got to brief them, background them, seduce them. If you don't have scouts, how the hell do you know what's going on? This is a combat area.

"Washington," says this man, "is also a big patsy. Nothing Washington wants more than to be taken. So why do they want the job if not to capture and captivate Washington? Why did they come here? And why does Carter have these guys around?" The Matchmaker

"I was just talking to a U.S. senator," says an old Washington hand who has been in and out of the government over the years. "He says that everybody is saying that what Carter needs is a chief-of-staff or a smart, old-time pol who can tell them that when you go into a congressman's district, you call the guy."

Robert Strauss first came to Washington during the days of Lyndon Johnson. He was a slick Texas lawyer, a smooth operator, a good ole boy. Bob Strauss is a born-again Washingtonian. He might as well have made up the rules of the game, so adept is he at surviving in a city where survival is the measure of the person.

He managed even as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, in a hostile and anti-Carter atmosphere to come out alive, secure a job in the administration as special a job in the administration as special trade representative with the rank of ambassador.

But that is not why Bob Strauss has emerged as an important and powerful figure in the Carter administration. The reason is that he knows and understands Washington and they don't.

Sen. Russell Long (D-La.) recently remarked to friends that the only people in the administration he could talk to were Bob Strauss and Joe Califano .

So now Bob Strauss' main function, it turns out fittingly, is that of matchmaker, go-between, marriage counselor.

He'll soften up a recalcitrant senator, soothe the ruffled feelings of an ambassador, mitigate the disapproval of a journalist, flatter a hostess and, suddenly, like magic, the Carter administration has a new friend, or at least one less enemy.

But Strauss' job is not the easiest job in the administration. In fact, it may be the hardest, considering what he has to work with.

"Strauss," says someone very close to him, who declined to be named, "is certainly close to the Washington establishment, and he's intimate with the Carter people, too. He was the only 'outsider' at Hamilton Jordan's Roast down in Albany, Ga., recently, among Powell, Rafshoon and Bert Lance. What he does is, he'll just suggest, for instance, that they go here or there. He got Stu Eizenstat to go to dinner at the new Canadian ambassador's, for example. He took Hamilton to lunch with Ardeshir (Zahedi, the Iranian ambassador). He's got Jody doing more. He told Jody he needed to get around more and got him to go to a dinner party one night, half sick. And Jody actually had a good time. And I think Jody really understands that he needs to get around more. Jack Watson will get out, but Hamilton is just not social. And the President certainly doesn't do anything."

Strauss himself is very circumspect about his new function. "I keep telling them," he says, "that they could serve their President best by making friends."

Strauss does say that "I think there's some hostility there. I think there's a feeling that they're being looked down upon, and they feel, with some justification, that people are treating them more as outsiders. But I think they're listening and I think they're learning more about Washington.The best thing I do for them," he admits, "is probably not high level. It's filling in a bit here, adding a dimension to what everyone does, touch seven or eight areas - like how the Hill functions, how to structure a meeting - go over their appointments with them. I just add a little seasoning to things. That's really the function I play." 'We'll Be here After'

"I think," said one Washington observer, that people are right when they talk about the Carter people having a Nixonian bunker mentality."

"I think you're wrong," said another. "The Nixon people were very social."

The surprised observer demanded to know who he was talking about. Who among the Nixon people got around?

"Well," he obliged, "there was Kissinger, Laird, Rumsfeld, Richardson, Safire, Ehrilichman, Garment, Kleindienst, Winston Lord, Larry Eagleberger, Agnew, John Mitchell, Pat Buchanan, Vic Gold . . ."

"We don't see them anywhere," says David Brinkley. "I saw Jody one night. He was highly uncommunicative. Everything he said sounded like phrases out of a campaign kit. I'm too old for that. The Nixon people were much more social than the Carter people in that, they'd come if you asked them. I never [WORD ILLEGIBLE] but other people I know [WORD ILLEGIBLE]

"Washington is really just a governmental community," says Brinkley, "including people like me. I'm not on the payroll but I do serve a function. If the government were not here, we wouldn't be here. And it's not only silly but bad policy to be standoffish.

"I do not, however, think that what's important is that various hostesses around town are not able to produce White House officials. The point is that it's not wise to refuse to join the community. You can't run the country in total isolation. There are lots of other people in this town besides them. And they need us more than we need them. We were here before they came and we'll be here after they leave."

"Most people in Washington," Susan Clough says, "find a way of perpetuating their existence here. Other people from other administrations stay. I find myself preparing for when it stops. I find that I am preparing to go."

Bob Lipshutz says that recently he's begun to look at an invitation and see if it is from somebody he's personally acquainted with or if it's someone whose work is related to his job. Then he might accept.

Lipshutz doesn't agree that the Carter people are inaccessible. "The truth is if people want to get hold of us it's the easiest thing in the world.

One think bothers him and his wife, Betty, though. "We haven't been able to reciprocate at home.Back in Atlanta we wouldn't think of going out to someone's house without reciprocating. But somehow that's not part of the style around here. A couple of times we've sent small gifts or something instead . . ."

He says the kind of entertaining they've done is just to have a few couples over to drinks or dinner. But they don't live in a very grand style and can't entertain the way they have been entertained.

"I do feel more comfortable about Washington parties now that I know which color wine is coming next. After you've been to a few you take them in stride. It gives me a better chance to get acquainted with people I might be dealing with, so if I pick up the phone the next week it's easier to discuss things with them and I'll get a quicker response."

"I'd agree that we should be learning how it's done, the new customs," says Greg Schneiders, a Carter White House aide. "I don't think I've ever failed to do something worthwhile in terms of my work at a party. But this is that last little effort that a lot of people in the administration are not willing to make. We want to spend our free time with people we know, with our friends."

Art Buchwald has a tennis tournament every year on his birthday. Each year in October he invites 60 or so friends to come to the buffet supper-tennis match. Every year he has had people from each administration represented. This past October he had friends from the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford administrations. There was not one person from the Carter administration. "Because," said Buchwald, "I just don't know any."

Buchwald, who has had friends in every administration since he arrived in the Eisenhower years, says that as he is going out and speaking across the country he finds that "Carter doesn't seem to be any more familiar now than he was before he was elected. People are waiting for the real Carter to stand up.

"I find Carter very hard to satirize because nobody knows him ."

"I sleep better at night not seeing them at dinner parties," says George Stevens, American Film Institute director. "My suspicion is that they're doing something better. But I think if they're not doing their job with Tip O'Neill that's one thing. I think they ought to be doing more work on Tip than at parties."

"So Carter says to me," says Tip O'Neill, "'Well, my people spend too much time on the job.' I say there's no camaraderie between the Carter people and the Hill people. I said to the President, 'You've met more people in 10 months than Kennedy or Johnson did, and more than Nixon and Ford combined.' But his people. I don't understand it.They don't know the Hill and they're not interested in meeting with us. There was supposed to be a meeting at Camp David to meet the Carter people. I don't know what happened to it. Well, it doesn't bother me. I just go to the President.

"But for the good of everybody the operation should be moving around better. I'm a Paul Young's, Duke's guy. And I tell you. In the past, during Johnson's years, we were always friends with Califano and Valenti. Those people and Kennedy's people used to call everybody by their first names. It helps.

"And when a fellow's sitting in a restaurant with a constituent they'd come over to the table. Make the candidate look good. The Carter people came into this town to run against the establishment and they haven't gotten over it. Everybody likes Carter himself. He's just a beautiful guy. He just needs a little assistance."

Sen. Barry Goldwater thinks the people around Carter are inexperienced. "In Atlanta they used kick people's a - s. In Washington you've got to kiss their a - s. They don't have the mobility and freedom to get out and find out what makes people tick. They don't know what makes Goldwater tick. They don't know what makes Hubert Humphrey tick. And it's going to take more than having people down to the White House for goddamn punch and peanuts."

Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) recently remarked bitterly to friends that the only person at the White House he could get to return his phone calls was Jimmy Carter . Sans the Sans

Bill Safire, former Nixon speechwriter and now New York Times columnist, recently called a friend in the Carter administration for lunch.

"OK," said the friend. "As long as we don't go to Sans Souci or one of those places."

"Ah," replied Safire. "Just like the Nixon crowd."

The dearth of Carter people at the Sans Souci right across the street from the White House has caused some notice. Paul De Lisle, the venerable maitre d'hotel who has steered the restaurant successfully through several administrations, won't comment yet on their noted absence. "I'll wait until after the congressional recess," he says. "Then I'll be able to decide. Sometimes it takes administrations a year and a half to find themselves ."

"If you don't go to other people's funerals they won't go to yours," says one Washington pol, now part of the administration. "I don't think Hamilton Jordan cares whether he hurts other people 's feelings or not. Oh, he's okay to hang out with. But when people leave he's pretty scornful. They think just being nice is part of the calculating, conniving Washington politics. To be nice doesn't mean you're surrendering to the Georgetown cocktail circuit. You don't have to do that. Just go to Duke's. Let yourself go. Have a nice time. God, these people make you long for good old Pat Buchanan. You don't have to go to Georgetown for dinner or the Sans Souci for lunch.Go have lunch with a guy from the Hill. Go to The Monocle with somebody else's press secretary."

Another senator, a Democrat, had this to say: "I like Cy Vance but Kissinger was around all the time. He was at breakfast, at lunch, on the Hill. Whoever sees Cy Vance? And the rest of the Cabinet is pretty much the same.

"Maybe the White House sets the tone for this kind of thing," he said. "If they didn't set the example it just wouldn't happen. It's not a matter of whether they're good people or bad people. It's just that we don't know them."

A well-known statesman called a well-known columnist and asked why they hadn't seen each other for so long.

"Well," replied the columnist, "I've written several critical things about the White House and I didn't want to queer your relationships with the Carter people by hanging around."

"Are you kidding?" replied the statesman. "I haven't seen them for months."

"I don't believe that they and the Washington social scene are ever going to meld together," says Clark Clifford, "but I see that as completely inconsequential. It wasn't good for the Kennedy administration. People were falling into swimming pools. And Nixon was going to have his little Sunday evening musicales with the main artists of the world. The first one was Red Skelton.

"How do ya like that, brother?" he chuckles.

Zbig Brzenzinski, who in his earlier incarnation had many friends among Washingtonians, has tried until recently, to maintain a low profile and not be too ifentified with them. He has instructed his secretary to ask anyone who invites him to dinner who will be there and to inform them that he will not go anywhere where there are more than 12 people.

However, when he did this to a friend he had known for years, she had her secretary call his secretary and give a list of the guests: Wayne Hays, Elizabeth Ray, Fanne Fox and John Mitchell . . .

"The real problem," says the oldtime pol, "is that it's about human relations. Being nice to people. They're not unskilled politicians. They're just no very nice. That's hard to get around. And I'm talking about Jody, Ham, (congressional liaison chief) Frank Moore. Even Jimmy.They're not the least bit soft. It used to be said of Jack Kennedy," says this man, "that the difference between him and the senators was that they read the paper in the morning to get the news, he read the paper to find out who to call." The Real Circle

Hamilton Jordan refused to return his phone calls on this story. But his wife, Nancy, a pretty, dark-haired woman with a soft, shy Southern manner, is gracious and kind on the telephone, as she tries to explain their social situation. Her friends admit that she herself would love to go out but that her husband is the one who refuses to go.

"We really are friendly," she says. "We like people. But we've all gotten involved. I don't leave my office until 7:30 or 8. Hamilton, 8:30 or 9. It's always been the same working for Jimmy Carter. We don't mean to be offensive. We've just never gone out. If we do go out to have a pizza with Jody and Nan or Frank and Nancy it's a big month. The times I've gone out in Washington I've really enjoyed it. But there's no way to get your job done and go out."

Hamilton Jordan seems to be the focal point for much of the criticism, both political and social, that is being leveled at the White House. It is Jordan who originally advocated the anti-Washington campaign Carter ran on. It is Jordan who remarked that if Vance and Brzezinski made it to the Cabinet, then he would quit. It is Jordan who announced he would have no part of the Washington establishment. It is Jordan who has been the main source of division between the Georgia people in the White House and the others.

According to several members of the Carter inner circle, it is Jordan who has alienated Fritz Mondale, Joe Califano, Brzezinski, Vance and the others who had been Washington figures before Carter's election. It is Jordan who called Mondale a "fool" and Califano "Mondale's fool." It is Jordan who began ridiculing Zbigniew Brzezinski by calling him Woody Woodpecker. It is Jordan to whom Tip O'Neill refers as Hannibal Jerkin. It is Jordan who sometimes come down harshly on those who talk too openly to the press. This atmosphere creates occasional moments such as the following:

A reporter called National Security Council flack Jerry Schecter to get a White House comment on Secretary of Defense Harold Brown. Schecter hesitated, apparently worried at the idea of being quoted. Finally, after some persuasion, he agreed to give a quote. But only on the grounds that it be "deep background." "You can't even say 'White House source'" he told the reporter. The reporter agreed, then pressed him for the quote.

Reluctantly, Schecter gave it to him. "We think he's great," he replied.

Another Washington observer notes that the people around Carter "see what happened to Jack Watson. He got badly burned by Jordan. And even Zbig is scared. He doesn't want to be another Kissinger. He doesn't want to be seen with the people he used to know. It would be considered a stigma. The center of this fear is Powell and Jordan. I've never seen anything where the real circle is so small as this."

(Like Jordan, Jody Powell was also difficult to reach on the subject of the social difficulties of the Carter-Washington marriage. When he finally agreed to comment on the subject, all he would say was, "I don't have any idea what you're talking about.")

"People have tried to say that all this stems," says Jerry Rafshoon, "from a resentment of Washington. But that's not true. Hamilton has always said what a good town and what fun Washington is."

At a recent dinner party in Washington given by Barbara Walters in honor of the Israeli and Egyptian ambassadors, Hamilton Jordan made one of his rate appearances, though without his wife, Nancy.

Jordan, who generally holds court with other Georgians in the best Phi Delt tradition, seemed ill at ease during the cocktail hour, only relaxing when Bob Strauss was around to act as liaison.

When he was finally seated for dinner he found himself next to Madame Ashraf Ghorbal, wife of the Egyptian ambassador. Henry Kissinger was seated on her other side. Jordan immediately unbuttoned the top button of his shirt and loosened his tie. Then, fortified with an ample amount of the host's booze, he gazed at the ambassador's wife's ample front, pulled at her elasticized bodice and was prompted to say, loudly enough for several others to hear, "I've always wanted to see the pyramids." Finally toward the end of dinner, he stood up and announced. "This administration has to take a p -."